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Meet: Rich McKenna

Operations Lead
Ames Research Center

photo of rich mckenna

Who I Am

My job for the Neurolab Mission is to serve as the Operations Lead for preparing the Ames experiment hardware for loading into the Spacelab. As Operations lead I am responsible for planning and documenting the many steps necessary to deliver the hardware to the Kennedy Space Center, to make sure that the right people with the right skills are ready to prepare the hardware for flight at KSC, and to assist the Science Team in their specimen loading operations.

Stepping outside the bounds of a formal job description, I have described below some of the fun stuff and what I will really be doing.

When the time comes for me to travel to Kennedy Space Center in mid March of 1998, my job becomes much more "hands on", and much more fun! The major part of my time at KSC will be spent making sure that the Research Animal Holding Facility Animal Habitats (cages) are ready for their animal astronauts. After we are sure that the Habitats are mechanically ready for the animals we will clean the cages one last time, then, inside a very clean room, we will load the cages with food, make sure that the drinking water system is working correctly and then assist the scientists and veterinarian as they load the animals into the cages. After the animals are loaded into their cages, we perform one last check to make sure that every step has been completed correctly and then hand the cages over (turnover) to the KSC technicians who will drive the cages out to the launch pad for loading into the Spacelab.

These, or similar steps, will also be performed for the Cricket, Toadfish and Swordfish experiment hardware by the other members of the Ames Operations Team. Our team motto is "Ops Rocks!", and during the last two weeks before launch we will be really "rockin", to keep up with a very tight and precise schedule of events. We never lose sight of the fact that at the end of the process we have a rocket ship standing ready for launch, and it will NOT wait for us. We must be ready!

This "hardware turnover" as we call it, will represent the end of the first part of my role in Neurolab. After watching the launch at KSC, (one of the greatest sights and sounds on earth), I will quickly drive to Orlando Airport and board a plane for Houston. After arriving in Houston I will travel to the Johnson Space Center and take up my console position in the Mission Control Center. (I calculate that by the time I finish my first shift in the Mission Control Center I will have been awake for about 24 hours!)

For the duration of the flight (sixteen or seventeen days), I will be sitting in front of computer screens, wearing a headset (just like the ones in the movie Apollo 13), monitoring the performance of the experiment hardware, and listening to the other Space flight Professionals as they monitor the health of the Spacelab and the Orbiter Systems. By watching the numbers and graphs on the computer screens I will be able to make sure that the animals are kept at the right temperature, that they are drinking the right amount of water, and the lights come on and go off at the right time. The astronauts will make sure that the animals are eating their food and add additional food as needed.

One of the other tasks I, and my Science colleague, Dr. Phil Lane will perform is to make any needed changes in the schedule of activities the crew will perform during the next flight day. This schedule of activities is commonly referred to as the Crew Activity Plan, or CAP, a highly detailed document that lays out all of the experiment steps the crew members will perform each day. Other tasks will include developing work-around plans if an item of experiment hardware does not work properly, and recording any data the crew "voices down" by radio during the flight.

Each flight day will be divided up into two twelve-hour shifts, the Execute Shift and the Replan Shift. Mr. Chris Maese, Dr. Tom Howerton, Ms Bonnie Dalton and Mr. Tony Intravaia will staff the Execute shift, and as mentioned before, Dr. Phil Lane and I will staff the Replan Shift.

My Career Journey

I cannot really claim to have made one single career decision to become an aerospace engineer, I just picked jobs in fields and technologies that interested me. After working as a telephone systems technician, and after getting an engineering degree, I went into nuclear engineering. After 12 years in the commercial nuclear power plant business I decided that I wanted to broaden my technical skills. I determined that aerospace engineering offered a greater variety of technologies to explore, so here I am!

But that is really not the whole story of my choice of career paths. My interest in Aerospace Engineering may also come from the fact that both my Father and Grandfather were Aerospace Engineers.

Perhaps it is wrong to call my Grandfather an aerospace engineer since he started his career in England in the early 1900s, initially doing research with manned kites (no joke!). He then wisely moved on to lighter than aircraft, balloons and dirigibles. As aircraft technologies improved he changed careers again and joined the Royal Air Force and rose to the rank of squadron leader, flying Sopwith Camels over France during the First World War. The Sopwith Camel was a biplane, made of wood, cloth and held together with wire, so it could hardly be called a Spacecraft! So perhaps it would be better to call him an aeronaut.

My father started his aerospace career pushing wood and wire, cloth covered airplanes out of the mud on grass runways. He then became a draftsman, designer and finally aerospace engineer working for Lockheed on the Polaris Missile. Quite a span of technologies over just one lifetime and career.

So my career path was not totally random but influenced by my father's stories and his retelling of his father's stories to me when I was a little boy.

Preparation for Career

As a child I was always interested in how things worked. I took all of my toys apart and put most of them back together. I read a lot of science fiction during my years as a teenager, and built radios and amplifiers from kits.

I developed a couple of experiments for science fair in high school, one trying to prove that the craters on the moon were made by meteors hitting the moon. (This was before Neil Armstrong's visit to the moon). This turned out to be a pretty dangerous experiment, since I used my BB gun to simulate the meteors, aiming the gun at plates of liquid, semi-solid and solid plaster of paris. But I made sure my Dad checked out and approved my design before my first firing, so I guess my survival was assured.

The other experiment used my newly built short wave radio to try to plot and predict the position of the Ionosphere by listening to Radio Switzerland every night for 3 months. Pretty harebrained now that I think about it, but although the experiment was a failure it did get me a fourth place at the State Science Fair. So what they say is true, an experiment that fails often is as valuable as one that succeeds.


If asked, I would tell the young person to try to take as many mathematics, physics, science and English classes as his or her school offered. I include the English classes because I have found that the ability to write clearly is essential if one is to advance in any career, especially engineering.

I would also tell the young person the same thing I told my own son when he first came home from school with a homework assignment. I explained to him that when I was in school, I had personally tried every possible way to get good grades without doing the homework and had never, ever been successful. I told him that I finally came to the sad conclusion that there is absolutely no way to succeed in school without doing all the homework on a regular basis. He must have taken my advice, he became a National Merit Scholar and is now attending the University of California at Berkeley.

Finally, I would advise the young person to meet with adults who work in the career or careers they are thinking of pursuing, and to ask them as many questions as they can. Questions such as, are you enjoying your career, does the career have a good, long term future, what will the adult be doing in 5 years, 10 years, etc.

Personal Information

I was born in England and moved to Canada with my family when I was 10 years old. The school I went to in Canada really was a one room schoolhouse, with all eight grades taught in the same large room. We had 20 students total, with one teacher to teach all of the subjects and all of the grades. The school has been preserved as a museum, and when my son was 5 years old I took him to it and showed him what schools used to be like in the "olden" days. He thought it was pretty cool! When the time came for me to go to High School our family moved to the United States, where I now live.

My wife, myself and our cat live in small town next to the Santa Cruz Mountains, on the edge of "Silicon Valley" in California. My hobbies include woodworking, wine making and gardening. My wife works as a consulting engineer, she is a native Californian who grew up in the Sacramento Valley.


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